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British Bombing

LAURENCE REES: Let's talk about the British experience with bombers once they start the war.

TAMI BIDDLE: Well, what they find out is that first of all the bomber will not always get through, as Stanley Baldwin had said back in the 1930s. Obviously lots of things had changed in the 1930s. It looked in the 1920s that bombers were way ahead of fighter technology and defensive technology. They were faster; here’s this vast space called the sky, how could you ever be intercepted when you could use the clouds and you could use all this space to get to where you want to go? Well, that’s all pre-radar technology. When radar comes on line everything changes. I think the British find first of all that it’s extremely difficult to be able to get over enemy territory and get back home again nearly as safely as they thought they would be able to.

The other thing, of course, is in Northern Europe or in Japan the weather’s very often extremely poor and so there are problems of flying in difficult weather, and flying eventually at night in difficult weather. You’re forced to fly at night because in daylight the fighter defences are much more aggressive, assertive and robust, so you’re forced into flying at night. When you’re flying at night you’re flying in darkness, everything below you is blacked out, and you aren’t really able to use reference points the way that you can when you’re flying a civilian airplane. Of course, anti-aircraft fire is coming up to you, fighters are coming up at you, searchlights are beaming into your eyes and so there’s this chaotic environment where you’re trying to find a target. Add to that things like industrial haze over the Ruhr, and this is not just kind of modern day industrial haze, this is coal based industrial haze which is sooty, smoggy stuff and trying to fly over that and find a target through that kind of stuff or fly back to Britain when Britain’s fogged in and find your airfield and land safely in the midst of a coal oriented fog is horrendously difficult.

And all the problems had never really been completely embraced or completely thought through. The problems of navigation, the problems of stress on individuals who were flying the airplanes, the problems of the aircraft itself, the problems of icing, all of these tremendously big issues suddenly come right up to the front and now you’re in the middle of a war and you’re trying to wage some kind of precise campaign where you’re trying to find specific targets at night with very primitive instruments and tools for navigation and finding your way.

As I said, it’s not reference points, it’s not maps, at the beginning you’ve got an astro-sextant if you’re lucky, you’re trying to navigate and use the stars at night, and often that’s virtually impossible to do, so it’s terribly hard in ways that people really had not thought through. And one of the great fascinating intellectual questions for me, as a historian of how militaries behave and how they plan, is why didn’t they see more of this? Why didn’t they understand how difficult this was going to be? And part of the answer is that they just don’t quite face up to it at some level, because maybe facing up to it would have meant having to admit that this bomber campaign would not perhaps be as robust or paradigm changing as airforces were thinking it would be.

Airforces bureaucratically and institutionally were very invested in seeing this new form of warfare as one that really was going to change everything.  They thought of themselves as being the people who were out on the vanguard; they’re the visionaries, they’re the Billy Mitchells and the Trenchards who sort of see this new world of warfare, and all the others are Luddites.

Billy Mitchell called them the longbow men: they’re not getting with the programme and they’re not understanding that all of warfare is now going to change. To admit to all of these problems and the operations of flying bombers would, I think, have undercut their own case for why bombardment is going to be so revolutionary and why it’s going to change warfare. Or, in the case of Mitchell, who was arguing that warfare would actually become more humane because it would be shorter as populations under the fall of bombs would not be able to tolerate them so wars would end much sooner. But if you start to face up to the problems that you’re going to have to adjust to when you are actually in the war, and if you start to look at all of the issues that come into play with weather and with technologies and with the fact that you don’t really have any navigation techniques to speak of, other than the most primitive imaginable things at the beginning of the war, your case for how this is going to change all of warfare suddenly doesn’t look so convincing any more. I think people really didn’t want to have to press themselves to do all of that.

The other part of it is that for most of the inter-war years everyone’s thinking there will be no war in the near term; there’s very little money to go around for spending on airplanes or practice or learning good navigational techniques or learning how really to do this or thinking it through operationally. So I think everybody’s kind of bouncing along thinking, you know, everything’s okay all through the 1920s, and then suddenly it’s the early 1930s and here we have this terrible, frightening threat. But even in the early 1930s I don’t think anyone really had taken on board what a threat it might become by the late 1930s. And so even through the middle of the 1930s there’s still a sort of sense of, well we’ll get around to building the new airplanes that we need, the technology is changing so fast that if we build a whole great load of this type then in ten years, or in five years, they’ll be obsolete, so, you know, we don’t have to build up until there’s a real threat of war.

When does that real threat of war start? By 1935-1936 when it starts to look like Hitler is actually pretty dangerous I think the RAF feels like they’ve been outpaced and they’ve got to now catch up very quickly. The Americans are on the other side of the Atlantic being very isolationist and not very interested in European affairs, and there’s so much ground to cover now and they’re trying to do it very quickly, and between 1935-1936 they realise they absolutely have to respond to this threat. In 1939 when the war starts there’s just not enough time to solve all the problems.

LAURENCE REES: But they do have to face up to these problems during the war, of course, don't they? Most notably when the Butt Report comes along in 1941

TAMI BIDDLE: Well, what they do is they start flying at night because it’s just too dangerous to fly in the daytime. So they’re forced into night flying, but they decide, well, we’d better figure out how well we’re doing. Because the pilots all come home and they say, yes, we’ve bombed the target and we did our best and so they’re very optimistic; but we’d better really figure it out. So they do a very thorough photo reconnaissance evaluation in the summer of 1941 and what they discover is pretty horrifying. It says basically that one in five bombers is getting within five miles of its target. And that just sets everybody back on their heels, I mean, some people in Bomber Command just can’t believe it. When Winston Churchill is told he’s distraught, he really is, he’s completely distraught because he thinks, God, you know, I’ve invested a lot in this tool, I argued in 1940 that we should continue the war and that one of the reasons should be because we have this instrument, Bomber Command, and a big part of the war effort is going to rest on their shoulders, and now I’m being told that this is what they’re actually achieving. He’s actually very, very distraught and he tells Portal that he doesn’t know what to do as it looks like Bomber Command’s not going to be very much more than a nuisance to the Germans. And Portal at that moment comes back to him (and Portal takes whatever the Prime Minister dishes out), and he said, 'well, Prime Minister, if you desire an airforce that’s quite different from the one that we’ve now been creating for the last several years, and you’ve been backing the creation of, then you really ought to, without a moment’s notice, tell the chiefs that we require a very different airforce'.

Now, he knew, of course, that Winston Churchill was not at that moment in 1941 going to say let’s have an army-oriented strategy and we’ll build lots of fighters and go and fight the sort of 1917-1918 style battle. He knew he had Churchill in a box, but by the same token the British had hung their hats on this form of warfare and by 1941 there were a lot of sunk costs. There was a lot that was now invested in this effort to make bombardment a viable tool of war. And the British Army wasn’t very large, you couldn’t throw it against the Wehrmacht alone, the French were out of the war and the Americans weren’t coming in until later that year when the Japanese would attack them, so I think Portal understood that he had to go forward. I think Churchill understood that he had to go forward. But it was a very frightening moment for everybody. And what they decide is that if this is the best we’re doing the only real choice we have is to fly to and hit targets that we can actually find, and the only targets that we can reliably find night after night with average crews are big conurbations; cities.

If we’re going to use this instrument at all, if we’re going to get something out of it, and, by the way, it’s about all we’ve got right now, this is how we’ll have to do it. We don’t really have much of a choice in terms of where the technology is. And I think what Churchill understood above all was that you must be able to strike back. If you’re going to keep the morale of your own country up enough to keep them in the fight you’ve got to be able to strike back somehow or else they’ll start to feel hopeless, they’ll start to feel impotent in the face of the enemy. And so I think he felt that however imperfect this was and however inefficient it was he had to go forward with it. And so they go forward with it.

And Portal, who had been the head of Bomber Command for a period in 1940 and knew how hard all of this was, had been pushing in the direction of going to area attacks on cities. The Air Staff and Ministry of Economic Warfare and a number of other organisations were nervous about moving away from specific targeting, and in particular they were interested in attacking transport and oil, which they thought would be the most efficient. Portal had come to grips, before many around him, with the fact that that was just not going to be feasible. Not only was it not feasible in terms of what you could find and hit, but also with Hitler taking over so much of the territory of Europe and finding resources and oil all around in Eastern Europe and in Russia ultimately this attack on oil wasn’t going to get you very far.

So, essentially, Portal sees the handwriting on the wall and understands that cities are going to be the future, at least for the near term for Bomber Command because that’s all they can do, in a systematic and consistent way. He then brings everybody around to that, and a week before Arthur Harris becomes the new head of Bomber Command in February of 1942 a new directive has been issued which says Bomber Command will go to the centres of cities in an attempt to destroy worker housing. We will attack the built-up areas of cities where workers live, and by attacking cities we will do the most efficient job that we can possibly do with the technology that we now have available to us, which is to take these airplanes and fly them over Germany at night in blacked out circumstances with very primitive target acquisition capabilities and we will try to find cities and we will try to drop bombs in a concentrated fashion on cities. That’s what we can do. And the situation in 1941-42 is pretty dire, and they feel like they’ve got to go to this extreme measure because it’s really all they’ve got at that point.